Man in Black Review: Highlander (1986)

Here we are, born to be kings
Princes of the Universe
Here we are, fighting to survive
In a world with the darkest power…

So began an epic that few could have imagined the legacy of. A former music video director, 4 writers, and one of the most legendary rock bands of the post-Beatles era teamed up to bring the world what looked to all accounts a standard 1980s action movie, a self-contained story about a small group of immortals and their quest for supremacy, a film that was held back by budget constraints and wasn’t received well enough in American theatres to be likely to have a sequel made.

Really, it seems like the only things Highlander had going for it were a week of filming Sean Connery, and a soundtrack by Queen. If those were the only things it had going for it, though, they were enough to cement the film in a unique place in history.

Despite initial poor reception, Highlander was a king of the video market, developing a huge following that persists to this day. So strong is this following that three television shows, three theatrical sequels including a crossover with the TV show hero, a direct to DVD sequel and and an animated movie would follow- not to mention the novelizations. So strong is this following that the hatred of a Highlander fan for 1992’s The Quickening, 2000’s Endgame or 2007’s The Source is so vivid that a fan of the Star Wars trilogy is liable to end a conversation about those sequels with the fervent belief that, you know what, The Phantom Menace wasn’t half bad, after all.

But I’m not here to talk about Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul and Padme, but rather about Conner MacLeod (pronounced “MacCloud”), Juan Ramirez, the Kurgan and Brenda. Thankfully, there is no true Anakin Skywalker or Jar Jar Binks equivalent in this movie.

Highlander exists in two separate timelines. The Prime is the present day, in the midst of an event known as the Gathering, where all of most of the remaining immortals are gathering in New York City to fight until there is only one left. This is the ultimate goal of their existence, as they share the same catchphrase as the film: “There can only be one!” What will happen when there is only one is fairly ambiguous, but it doesn’t much matter. For those unmotivated to kill their fellows, it seems the strongest known immortal, the Kurgan, is more than happy enough to kill off any that come within arm’s reach for the sole sake of sadism, and self-defense more than anything else requires MacLeod to fight until he’s the only one left.

The secondary timeline follows MacLeod through the day he was awakened as an immortal (an event which requires a violent death), through his training with Juan Ramirez (an Egyptian who happens to be just now living in Spain, causing him to apparently have a retroactively Spanish name despite his Scottish accent), the life and death of his first wife, Ramirez’s fate at the hands of the Kurgan, and a quick gloss over of the remaining 500 years including visits to the American Revolution and Nazi Germany.

What we have here is an effective and emotional origin story, complete with the brutality and idiocies of the Dark Ages (seriously, don’t you just love it when resurrection is treated as a sign of anti-Christian activities?), a tale of love and loss, all amidst an action movie that includes training montages and a nigh untoppable rock soundtrack. There’s nothing new I can say about Queen’s music here, except that almost every distinct rock song I ever liked, I eventually traced back to them. I only wish Highlander had bothered to include a “Fat Bottomed Girl” at some point.

Highlander is far from perfect, however. The choice to set the main part of this film with a jaded character who would never love again makes it difficult to establish an emotional connection or a motive when MacLeod acts. His hollow look and “I’ll go along with his bullshit” attitude seems to be the rule and, while there are certainly reasons for the character to act that way, it seems an odd choice to set the majority of the movie around. Then again, I’m looking back on this film after five sequels. At the time, I doubt anybody involved in making this film believed they’d have the backing or the budget to set the first movie in the 1500s and the second one in the 1980s (and if they did, they likely would have met the same fan outrage as Beastmaster 2).

Beyond the story decisions, you get the impression that this was a fairly rushed or flawed production. Some of the acting feels a bit off, such as when Conner tells a young girl “It’s a type of magic”. It seems more like you’re testing out the line than actual delivering the final, definitive take for the film.

“Mr. Mulcahy? Can I do another take? Heh heh.”

“There can be only one!”

“Sheesh, you don’t have to cut my head off over it.”

That’s another thing. I’ve never seen Christopher Lambert in anything other than Highlander films, but some of the scenes in this movie (as an immortal Conner MacLeod several hundred years old) give me the impression that he has a normal voice. Why is it, then, that as the film goes on he adopts a villain voice and has the exact same laugh that, two decades later, would be used by comedians to villainize George W. Bush? (Ending spoilers follow this paragraph)

Adding to the feel of a rushed production are the effects, which were scaled back due to budget constraints. While I have a feeling they did the best they could with what they had, it often looks as though someone laid the raw footage out on the desk and took a crayon to it. This isn’t helped by the fact that you get some strange visuals, like special effect ghost monsters (the predecessors to CGI) that try to eat and tear apart the protagonist in his moment of victory. No explanation is given for these creatures, and they’re said to impart “the Prize” on MacLeod, so why are they causing him such immense pain? Sure, it would be easy enough for me to rationalize, particularly in light of what came afterward (movies 3 and on go forth with the idea that it wasn’t really the Prize at all).

Talking about things with no explanations brings me to what I feel is the biggest flaw in this movie. This is a line that serves no purpose but to undermine the most meaningful relationship in the series without due cause, and one that could have been cut out easily. Let me explain.

During his final confrontation with Ramirez, during which Conner’s home is demolished by unexplained Quickenings (you never really learn the deal with these, as their purpose and meaning seem to be ever-changing), it is implied that the Kurgan rapes Heather, Conner’s wife. It is during a conversation toward the very end of the movie that Kurgan discovers whose wife it was and informs MacLeod of this. He then goes on to speculate about why Heather hid this from her husband (who she remained married to for several decades more) and to claim that she secretly liked it.

It’s not this scene in and of itself that bothers me. Villains play mind tricks, and they do sleazy, evil things. That’s what makes you want to kill them, and part of what keeps them alive so long. My problem with this is that if you’re going to have your villain make such claims, you should disprove them. This is even more noticeable when you take into account that the next time we see Conner and Heather together after Ramirez’s death, both have giant smiles on their faces.

One thing from Highlander 3 sort of can be used to justify this: that Conner may have been away for years training in Asia when Ramirez met his fate, and therefore so much time passed between Heather’s rape and her seeing her husband again that she never brought the event up. I’d accept that, if there was any hint that that’s what they were going for with this. Instead, they bring up a heinous event, ask questions about it, and answer nothing, something that distracted me so much for the following fifteen minutes (which included the climax) that it robbed me of the ability to ever consider myself a true Highlander fan.

My qualms with the ending aside, though, Highlander deserves its reputation. It’s easy for someone looking for flaws to tear it apart, but it’s full of the goodness that was inherent in film-making in the 1980s and features some of the most unforgettable characters, scenes and music of all time. It wraps up the story- save the one discrepancy- in a neat package and features well-choreographed action scenes that are cut in such a way as to be a single long music video- think Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker done right.


2 thoughts on “Man in Black Review: Highlander (1986)

  1. Pingback: Man in Black Review: Highlander: Endgame (2000) | MiB Reviews | Movies | Comics | Games | Television | Novels | MusicMiB

  2. Pingback: Man in Black Review: Highlander: The Source (2007) | MiB Reviews | Movies | Comics | Games | Television | Novels | MusicMiB

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